It was supposed to go much more smoothly than this. During the 2016 campaign, Republicans uneasy with Donald Trump told themselves that the real action would be in Congress, where their dreams would finally be realized. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would pass one sweeping bill after another to put conservative ideology into practice, and Trump would sign them all, because everyone knew he didn’t care about policy. He might say crazy stuff and even make some questionable decisions, but the legislative train would keep chugging along, making it all worthwhile.
But it’s not working out that way. The Atlantic’s Molly Ball reports that a deep malaise has overtaken the Republican Congress:
“For the Republicans running the government, Capitol Hill has become a workplace with extremely poor morale. The moderates fear for their careers, while the conservative true believers see little to hope for. When the liberal magazine Mother Jones credited Representative Justin Amash of Michigan with being the first Republican to raise the possibility of impeachment, the office of Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida called to request a correction: Curbelo had gone there first.
“But for the most part, his party has not openly turned on Trump. What would be the point? Behind closed doors, a longtime House Republican staffer told me, a few lawmakers still wholeheartedly defend the president; among the rest, there are differing degrees of fatalism. One group thinks it is possible to fight through the crisis, while another is resigned to ’a long slow death,’ as this staffer put it, potentially culminating in a Democratic-controlled House beginning impeachment proceedings in 2019. ’This is like Reservoir Dogs,’ the staffer said. ’Everyone ends up dead on the floor.’”
Though the White House is even more of a chaotic mess than anyone thought it would be, in theory, congressional Republicans could plug away on their own and deliver those bills for the president’s signature. So why hasn’t it happened?
Let’s start by looking at the record. So far, this Congress has passed 35 laws, almost none of which are the kind of thing you tout as a grand achievement when you’re running for reelection, unless you’re particularly jazzed about the “U.S. Wants to Compete for a World Expo Act” or the “Joint resolution providing for the appointment of Roger W. Ferguson as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.” The most substantive things Congress has done are a series of bills passed under the Congressional Review Act, which allows them to nullify regulations promulgated by the president within a 60-day window. They used the CRA to undo a series of last-minute regulations from the Obama administration on things like dumping coal ash into streams (A-OK), employers keeping records of employee injuries (no longer necessary), and internet service providers selling your browsing data without your permission (now they can).
But except for the affected special interests looking for a favor, those laws are pretty small potatoes - and they can no longer use the CRA against any Obama regulations. The bigger things, it turns out, were more complicated than anyone (at least any Republicans in Congress) imagined. And they’re even harder when they don’t have backup from the White House.
Take health care. If you’ll recall, passing the Affordable Care Act required a herculean effort from both the Obama White House and Democrats in Congress. It took an entire year, involved countless meetings and hearings and markups, and eventually passed without a single vote to spare. Republicans are trying to undo it not only without much help from the White House, but often with the president undermining them with his public comments. Sunday he tweeted “I suggest that we add more dollars to Healthcare and make it the best anywhere” at a moment when Republicans are trying to justify cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in health-care spending.
So at this point, the possible outcomes on health care all look terrible for Republicans. They can fail to pass anything, in which case they’ll look pathetic and their base will be disgusted with them. Or they can pass some version of the American Health Care Act that got through the House, which most Americans already hate and which will be a policy disaster.
The other big item is tax reform, and as Richard Rubin of the Wall Street Journal reports, “Republicans are scouring the tax code, searching for breaks to offset the deep rate cuts they desire. But the biggest tax breaks are surviving and the boldest ideas for change are on political life support or already dead.” I’ve been arguing that in the end they’ll probably just give up on comprehensive reform and strip it down to what they really want, which is a tax cut for the wealthy. That will be something, but not the big achievement they were hoping for.
One lesson here is that ambitious legislation requires both the president and Congress working together and being on their game, which isn’t the case right now. But there’s another problem, and perhaps a bigger one, that keeps Congress from passing buckets full of legislation.
There is the matter of distraction, as Congress is pulled into investigations and controversies. But more important, Congress can’t just ignore what’s going on in the White House and forge its own path because the fate of every member is tied to that of the president. An unpopular president beset by scandal makes members fear for their own seats, which encourages an every-person-for-themselves atmosphere. The less popular the president is, the more members look for ways they can show the voters back home that they’re independent, which can mean bucking their own party leadership.
Even as they keep working on those big pieces of legislation, Congress has some urgent matters in front of it: keeping the government open and avoiding a default on the debt, both of which they have to take care of in the next few months - which pushes the sexy stuff back even further. When they have complete control, that ought to be easy. But as long as Donald Trump is in the White House, everything is harder for Republicans than they thought.